(Originally published in the October 29, 2011 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
Owner B.J. Wright and trainer Mike Pender had a phenomenal week in mid-October. It began Oct. 8 with Jeranimo’s mild upset in the Oak Tree Mile Stakes (gr. IIT) at Santa Anita, continued Oct. 11 with the purchase of the sale-topper at the Barretts yearling sale, and culminated with the 34-1 surprise of Ultimate Eagle in the Oct. 15 Oak Tree Derby (gr. IIT).
Does such success stem from an owner-trainer team that selects and then trains good horses? Or is it a combination of serendipity that put a man and a boy together as coach and quarterback for an elementary school football team and then reunited them at the racetrack plus good karma from donating a percentage of purse winnings to support improved health for villagers in the Peruvian Amazon.
Wright isn’t sure, but he’s having a blast, especially since he may get to see his silks for the first time in a race at Churchill Downs in his home state of Kentucky. His goal is eventually to witness those colors atop a runner in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), but watching Jeranimo tackle the TVG Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. IT) will be just dandy.
Growing up in Shelbyville, Ky., Wright’s love for the sport emerged upon seeing the reverence with which Kentuckians mourned the death of the great Man o’ War and reading tales spun by breeder Jane Hinkle in a weekly column for the local newspaper.
After a year or two at Transylvania University in Lexington, Wright went to work for the Collier Publishing Company, which took him to Iowa and ultimately to California. He raced a few horses during the 1960s and returned to ownership in the late 1990s. In between, he coached football for Glenoaks Elementary School in Glendale.
“My son, Jay, and (Mike) Pender were in the same class,” said Wright. “The school wanted to put together a football team, and they asked me to coach it. I made Pender the quarterback, and we went undefeated.”
Years later Wright encountered Pender at the racetrack, and Pender told Wright he had become a trainer.
“I watched him for a couple of years, and then I gave him a horse,” said Wright. “I really like the relationship we have.”
Wright, now 73, owns about 15 horses. Eight are in training with Pender at the track. He keeps three broodmares at Rick Taylor’s Special T Thoroughbreds near Temecula, Calif. While Pender and Taylor help select horses at sales, Wright takes pride in doing much of the work himself.
“We feel you’ve got to have a good individual who looks right and moves right,” said the owner. “The pedigree is also very important. In that last sixteenth of a mile, sometimes the pedigree can get you home.”
Wright enjoys naming his horses. He wanted “Geronimo” for a son of Congaree—Jera, by Jeblar, which he bought out of the 2008 Barretts May 2-year-old sale for $70,000. The Jockey Club turned him down for the traditional spelling, but allowed Jeranimo.
“It looks like we named him after the dam,” Wright said, “but we really named him after Geronimo, one of the great Americans, one of the original Americans, a true leader, a warrior. This horse is a warrior.”
Jeranimo got Wright to Kentucky, but not quite to Churchill Downs. The colt ran sixth in the 2009 Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II), ending any Derby dreams. Since then, Jeranimo has won the 2010 Strub Stakes (gr. II), 2010 San Gabriel Stakes (gr. IIT), and this year’s Oak Tree Mile.
Wright named Ultimate Eagle for a close friend, John Paul DeJoria. The name comes from the parable “The Eagle and the Oyster,” in which the life of the eagle is hard but through his efforts leads to freedom and success. DeJoria began with nothing and built several businesses to become a billionaire. The 3-year-old colt by Mizzen Mast—Letithappencaptain, by Captain Bodgit, another $70,000 2-year-old sale purchase, was going to be Wright’s Derby horse this year until colic nearly led to his death. With his victory in the Oak Tree Derby, Ultimate Eagle is becoming “the horse we always thought he was,” said Wright.
Chairman of LifeSource Water Systems, a water filtration company in Pasadena, Calif., Wright is such a believer in the importance of good water that he gives the filtered water to his horses. That also led him to his charitable work with Nancy Santullo’s House of the Children, which provides clean water and sanitation to such people as the villagers in the Peruvian Amazon.
A portion of his horses’ winnings goes to the project. A shaman from one of the villages made a special set of ceremonial beads for Wright, who wears them proudly when his horses run.
“I wear these beads in honor of the shaman who made them, and I’ve won two grade II races,” said Wright.
No doubt those beads will be traveling to Kentucky for the Breeders’ Cup.